End of Empire? A view from Haiti

A protest commemorates the 100th anniversary of the U.S. occupation of Haiti and the launch of the people’s tribunal, Port-au-Prince, July 2015. (Mark Schuller)

By Mamyrah Dougé-Prosper & Mark Schuller, The North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), March 19, 2021

Even if only psychologically, the beginning of the new year represented a chance to exhale. In the United States, 2020 was tarred not only by Covid-19 and its 350,000 deaths, but also by an ongoing pandemic of state violence, particularly against Black people. Black Americans are twice as likely to die from Covid-19 as their white counterparts, and U.S. police shot and killed 226 Black people last year—twice the rate of white people. The descent into more overt white supremacy sharpened as the presidential contest approached, from Donald Trump openly emboldening the Proud Boys to a militia plotting a coup against Michigan’s governor. Hundreds of migrant children were locked up during the pandemic in guarded hotels—shadowy operations advocates warned endangered minors. Voters rejected Trump’s vision for making America great again (again) by over seven million votes.

Before celebrating the end of Empire, it is worth remembering that over 74 million voters gave Trump their approval, which is more people than had voted for Barack Obama. And President Joe Biden’s ties to the international revolving door between lobbyists and multinational corporations have long been exposed. And yet, as the January 6 coup attempt graphically underlined, Empire is in crisis, and it is flailing to restore itself by descending into fascism.

On January 1, 2021, Haiti commemorated 217 years of independence. Instead of large celebrations or protests, the streets of Port-au-Prince were notably empty. Some posted videos of tires burning, blockading main thoroughfares, but mostly people were at home out of fear of being kidnapped. Abductions spiked dramatically in the last two months of 2020, coincidentally since the U.S. presidential election. This “gangsterization” has spread into far-flung areas of Haiti such as the Grand-Anse department. In addition to a generalized state of fear, activists have denounced increasing targeting, including legal persecution: President Jovenel Moïse issued a decree last year establishing that certain forms of protest constitute “terrorism.” According to the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH), 944 people were murdered in the first eight months of 2020. Although Moïse’s term expired February 7, there isn’t even a pretense of an end in sight to the violence or the regime.

In the two oldest nations in the Americas, born of revolution, the processes of state violence in all its forms are symptoms of the structural inequalities of racial capitalism. The two nations also share a history, as the United States transformed into a global superpower as a result of France losing its “pearl of the Caribbean.” The Haitian Revolution and first constitution offered amnesty and citizenship to any person seeking freedom from slavery. Slaveholding powers, particularly the United States, systematically punished Haiti for this precocious assertion that Black Lives Matter. Industrial capitalism was built on Caribbean sugar plantations, which is to say on slavery.

Aside from serving as an example and inspiration for slave revolts across the Caribbean and the United States, newly independent Haiti offered timely assistance to Simón Bolívar in 1815, enabling him to liberate Venezuela, and thus South America, from Europe. This vision of pan-American solidarity outside U.S. control was interrupted in 2019 when Trump ally Moïse severed ties with Venezuela. In exchange for Haiti’s decisive vote against Venezuela in the Organization of American States (OAS), the Trump administration rewarded Moïse with ongoing support. As was the case following a similar OAS vote in 1962 that ejected Cuba from the bloc with Haiti’s support, the U.S. blessing emboldened the Haitian state to consolidate power by any means necessary. History has judged Haitian president-for-life François Duvalier (1957-1971) as a dictator abetted by Washington. Solidarity movements have been slow to come to this same conclusion in the contemporary context.

In other words, the situation in Haiti is directly connected to U.S. Empire. It is at the other end of racial capitalism’s brutal extraction and the repressive state apparatus necessary to maintain it. To look at the situation in Haiti is to look at U.S. Empire, and vice versa. As Empire’s decline triggers fascist efforts to cling to power, these states sanction ongoing police brutality and paramilitary terror against dissenting Black bodies, carried out by white vigilantes or militias in the United States and neighborhood-based gangs in Haiti. At the same time, both states have rendered women and LGBTQI+ people more vulnerable.

More specifically, in Haiti, since January 13, 2020—a day after the 10th anniversary of the devastating earthquake—president Moïse has ruled by decree. The parliament’s term expired, and general elections remain stalled, currently scheduled for September 2021. The 2011 election of President Michel Martelly and his subsequent consolidation of power in his Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK) gave rise to a bandi legal or “legal bandit” toxic masculinist state that has intensified a culture of rape and impunity. Several government officials, influential media personalities, and notorious gang leaders have been accused of (but not tried for) systematic sexual assault. Neighborhoods known for resisting their organized abandonment have been targets of massacres. Many activists including artists, movement leaders, journalists, legal scholars, and some state officials have been jailed, received death threats, or been assassinated.

The climate of insecurity, compounded by high unemployment rates, has pushed and continues to push the relatively educated young population to migrate to sub-imperialist countries like Brazil and Chile. Some have opted to travel in the so-called migrant “caravans” to the U.S.-Mexico border. According to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), the United States “consistently detained more Haitian families in 2020 than any other nationality.” At one detention center in Karnes County, Texas, more than 44 percent of people incarcerated between March and June 2020 were Haitian.

Haiti continues to be a central battleground for global capitalism. The Core Group in Haiti—international representatives of Empire—also supports Moïse. Elected in 2016 in a vote that independent observers deemed fraudulent, the president has been implicated alongside other state officials and key transnational business leaders in the squandering of at least $2 billion in PetroCaribe funds intended to finance social and development projects. Under the cloak of democracy, Moïse has appointed female mouthpieces and proposed LGBTQI-friendly legislation, obscuring his regime’s authoritarianism, dividing the protesting masses, and satisfying the international community’s homonationalist agenda. Meanwhile, the scramble for Haiti progresses as the state secretively advances neoliberal extractivist plans for the mining and agribusiness sectors and facilitates speculation of the national currency, the gourde, further intensifying environmental degradation and collapsing national production.

Since 2018, in response to savage racial capitalism and the consolidation of a dictatorship in Haiti, a loosely coordinated cross-class, cross-sectorial, and transnational movement pushing different tactics erupted under the banner of #KòtKòbPetwoKaribeA? Where are the PetroCaribe funds? In the United States, in light of migrant concentration camps, police brutality disproportionately targeting Black bodies, and the devastating impacts of Covid-19 on poor and racialized communities, #BlackLivesMatter activists revived the movement for another round.

This issue of the NACLA Report provides timely and necessary analysis of leading issues concerning Haiti and a warning about emergent imperialist strategies. It centers the experiences and perspectives of Haitians on the island and in the diaspora as “traditional” and “organic” intellectuals, in Antonio Gramsci’s terminology. It also features pieces from key U.S.-based Haiti solidarity scholar-activists.

The collection begins with Mamyrah Dougé-Prosper’s analysis of the geopolitical stakes in the longue durée of the scramble for the Americas. From the plantation complex to petropolitics, Latin America and the Caribbean have been sites of constant struggle. Just as the world order, particularly the United States, punished Haiti for being a beacon of freedom for enslaved people from Africa, the Empire struck back against the Bolivarian Revolution led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the “multiverse.” Continuing this analysis, James Darbouze centers Haiti’s place within struggles against global capitalism’s white supremacy. Darbouze highlights the potential for regional solidarity and the U.S. state’s specific attempts to undermine Black liberation.

In the United States, issues of migration and state violence against Black bodies are often posed as separate, though activists attempt to build a solidarity politics. Contemporary policies against what Trump called “shithole” countries highlight that these issues are directly connected. Offering historical context, Georges Eddy Lucien argues that the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation set in motion circuits of capital accumulation, inequality, and migration. Controlling the major islands at the time, U.S. capitalist interests systematically underdeveloped Haiti and destroyed the peasantry at the same time as U.S. investment in Cuban and Dominican sugar production peaked, requiring Haitian laborers. Next, a conversation about extractivism with Haitian and solidarity activists further explores the historical legacy of extractive industries with a particular focus on mining and its parallels with tourism and agribusiness.

In an interview, Ninaj Raoul explains the roots of the “Haitian migration crisis” during the violent U.S.-backed coup from 1991 to 1994. She details the continuities in U.S. policies and outlines solidarity work with migrants from other countries who have Temporary Protected Status. Building on this discussion, Rachel Cantave, Martine Jean, and Guerline M. Jozef discuss a new circuit of migration since the 2010 earthquake via Brazil and Latin America. Similar to how U.S. capital in the sugar islands lost interest, Brazil’s right-wing government heaved Black Haitian laborers after they finished constructing stadiums, built under Workers’ Party governments, for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Returning to the U.S. context, Guerline M. Jozef and Jake Johnston detail Trump’s deportation machine and its renewed legitimation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Not coincidentally, for-profit detention centers were petri dishes for coronavirus transmission, and the United States in effect exported Covid-19 to Haiti, where the rate of infections spiked in May and June following deportation flights in April with individuals who tested positive for the virus soon after arrival.

 

Paradoxically and somewhat mysteriously, Haiti was spared Covid-19’s death machine. Judite Blanc and Anderson Pierre use a psychopolitical approach to discuss how the Haitian population, particularly the poor majority, were partly prepared for the pandemic because of the series of peyi lòk, or general strikes, that began on July 6, 2018, when Moïse announced a hike in gas prices imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The tactic of peyi lòk became a signature of the movement that sprung up to demand #KòtKòbPetwoKaribeA? In an interview, members of Nou Pap Dòmi (NPD), a collective involved in this struggle, outline the lessons learned from this tactic. They also discuss the class contradictions and gender politics of this new social movement that succeeded in bringing government officials under investigation to account for the $4.2 billion from which Haiti benefited through PetroCaribe.

Since the peyi lòk began, the Haitian state has responded with increasing repression. Across the world, public universities are perennial targets of dictatorships, in part because of their de jure autonomy from capitalist interests and their roles in producing independent researchers and educating and mobilizing free-thinking citizens. Ilionor Louis analyzes the longue durée crisis of Haiti’s State University (UEH) in the context of growing neoliberal encroachment and state repression. Next, Djems Olivier zooms in on NGOs’ and the international system’s instrumentalization of gangs, in effect reinforcing their power and “archipelizing” their turf. Under Moïse and his PHTK government, the state quickly harnessed this archipelization, particularly as the government lost credibility following the PetroCaribe scandal. This “gangsterization” of the country has not only resulted in hundreds of killings, it also keeps people off the streets, consolidating the slide toward dictatorship.

Relatedly, Sabine Lamour details how the macho-nationalist regime has built state power on controlling, violating, raping, and killing women’s bodies. She outlines chilling parallels between the worst of the Duvalier dictatorship and the nine-year PHTK rule. Against this backdrop of state gender violence, an excerpt from a series of Haitian Studies Association Working Sessions on the “Rights to Live Creatively” with Kouraj director Hetera Estimphil and artist Josué Azor distills the contradictions of contemporary realities for LGBTQI+ people, known in Haiti as Kominote M. Azor’s photographs documenting queer life in Haiti accompany this discussion. A poem about corruption by Mehdi Chalmers follows.

Taken together, this Report off ers a unique series of grounded perspectives to not only begin a theoretical refl ection on Haiti’s still-unfolding contemporary situation, but also hopefully to inspire a more principled, informed, and engaged solidarity politics. Linked by history and the global racial economy, struggles in Haiti and across North America are manifestations of an Empire grasping for new strategies as the extractivist paradigm is reaching its natural limit. Th e current moment requires more, not less, active engagement.

It is precisely during periods of “crisis” like these that the fog of ideology is easier to lift . Our destinies are already intertwined, connected by legacies of colonialism, patriarchy, slavery, and capitalism. Rather than continuing the endless whack-a-mole process of resisting, which is exhausting and burning people out, this moment calls for us to see how we are not only connected by particular issues, but also connected to communities that are diff erently situated along global capitalism’s process of accumulation by appropriation.

 

Mamyrah Dougé-Prosper is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. Her doctoral work centered on a coalition of social movement organizations calling for an end to the ongoing “non-governmental” occupation of Haiti. She is currently working on a monograph entitled Development Contested in Occupied Haiti: Social Movements, NGOs, and the Evangelical State. She has also served as an organizer with land and housing rights organization Take Back the Land-Miami and is presently the International Coordinator for Community Movement Builders.

 

Mark Schuller is Professor at Northern Illinois University and affi liate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. Author or co-editor of eight books, including Humanity’s Last Stand, he has written over 40 book chapters and peer-reviewed articles and more in public media. Recipient of the Margaret Mead Award and the Anthropology in Media Award, Schuller is president of the Haitian Studies Association and the United Faculty Alliance, NIU’s faculty union.

 

Posted March 22, 2021